The Saloon Singers

For all the supposed topsy-turvy backstage at Los Angeles Opera, on stage it could be accused of being consistent to a fault just now. Wednesday night, the company's 17th season picked up pretty much where the previous one had left off. In June, the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion was home to Puccini's last two operas, "Gianni Schicchi" and "Turandot." The new season opened with yet another late Puccini work, "The Girl of the Golden West," produced by the "Turandot" team.

There were differences, however. Gian-Carlo del Monaco wasn't on hand to stage his production, which comes to Los Angeles from Nice. The director, no longer welcome after his reported temper tantrums here in the spring, was replaced primarily by his assistant, Elena Kalabakos. Designer Michael Scott angered "Turandot" audiences with a handsome lacquered set not fully visible from many seats. But for Puccini's horse opera, Scott has done a spectacular job of re-creating the Gold Rush country. His intricately detailed sets of saloon, mountain cabin and mining town, which pay homage to classic Hollywood westerns, prompted delighted applause. A couple of beautiful horses and gorgeous snow didn't hurt, either.

There are other differences, as well. While "Schicchi" and "Turandot" are Puccini at his most dramatically sophisticated, "Girl of the Golden West" ("La Fanciulla del West," in its original title) represents, at least for a Californian, exoticism gone risibly awry. Grizzled miners long for mama. Minnie (part Mimì, part Annie Oakley), never before kissed but quick on the draw, redeems the bandit, Dick Johnson, through her love, as she rejects the advances of Sheriff Jack Rance. Puccini pours on the thick pathos. Although there are moments of Debussyan harmonies and experimental orchestrations that can take a listener aback, they make for a pretty Sierra musical atmosphere. Who doesn't cringe when the ragazzi start up with their Italianate "Dooda, dooda, dooda day"?

So leave it to the ever unpredictable L.A. Opera to actually pull this original spaghetti western off. Leave it, in particular, to Plácido Domingo.

Domingo has long shown a fondness for the role of Dick Johnson. He's recorded it twice, sung it countless times, including in the previous L.A. Opera production of the opera in 1991. Domingo was also the star when the Metropolitan Opera mounted what was essentially the same Del Monaco production 10 years ago. And the opera does suit Domingo particularly well. As suave bandit and lover, Johnson is a man who lives off his charm, and Domingo saunters around the stage as if he owns it (which he does, in a sense, as the company's artistic director). With each passing year, his enduring vocal freshness comes to seem a phenomenon of nature. But even by Domingo's standards, he can still produce an arresting bloom.

The sets are canny, full of enclosed wooden structures that effectively reflect the voice, and he managed to find just the right place when he needed a bit of extra support. And while Domingo is hardly as flexible a singer as he once was, he has the ability to compensate with perfectly prepared outbursts, to make acting and singing part of the same inner ardor. Wednesday night, he was, on all levels, a master at work.

And that includes as impresario. With the boss on stage, the company comes to life. Catherine Malfitano's Minnie will not be to all tastes. At times she could seem a coltish Joan Crawford. She is no longer strong in the lower ranges and variably steady in the upper. But she commands the big moments vocally and theatrically, as she chews the scenery. She also makes a good foil to Wolfgang Brendel's dangerously elegant Jack Rance.

"Girl of the Golden West" has never been one of Puccini's most popular operas, and in part that is because the opera requires a particularly good ensemble cast (not, as a program essay would have us believe, because audiences are still influenced by the critical response of its premiere in 1910). There are 15 small roles--miners and Native Americans--and it's a nearly impossible task not to make them all seem faintly ridiculous. The production does a superb job of creating harsh realism, with the solo singers and chorus aided and abetted by stuntmen producing a rollicking barroom brawl. Strongly realized were the love-sick Sonora (Ralph Wells), the Wells Fargo agent Ashby (Louis Lebherz), nostalgic balladeer Jake Wallace (James Creswell), homesick Larkens (Ron Li-Paz) and the squaw Wowkle (Suzanna Guzmán).

A further attribute, and one of the most important, was the company debut of a conducting girl of the West, the energetic Australian conductor Simone Young. Her basic impulse was to create excitement. She did not hesitate to push the ensemble to its limits; she was not afraid to run roughshod over Puccini when that meant moving along the action (this is a western, after all, and the first act drags). She was not afraid to let lyricism blossom and not afraid to cut it off before it turned maudlin.

"Girl of the Golden West" is a dumb opera, and I think everyone in the Pavilion knew it Wednesday. To L.A. Opera's credit, most of us didn't care.

"The Girl of the Golden West" repeats Saturday, Tuesday and Sept. 13, 16 and 19 at 7:30 p.m. and Sept 22 at 2 p.m. (with Luis Lima replacing Plácido Domingo for the last two performances), $30-$170, Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, 135 N. Grand Ave., L.A. (213) 365-3500.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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